In a shock move, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday recalled their envoys to Qatar.
The three countries said the move was taken to "to protect their security and stability," a Saudi Press Agency statement said
The trio also said that Qatar had not “committed to the principles” of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and said "Qatar has to take the appropriate steps to ensure the security of the GCC states."
They made the decision following what Gulf media described as a "stormy" late Tuesday meeting of foreign ministers from the GCC in Riyadh, according to Agence France-Presse.
The GCC foreign ministers said they had met in Riyadh to try to persuade Qatar to implement the agreement.
"But unfortunately, these efforts did not result in Qatar's agreement to abide by these measures, which prompted the three countries to start what they saw as necessary, to protect their security and stability, by withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar starting from today, March 5 2013," the statement said.
In response, Qatar expressed “regret” and “surprise” at the recall of Gulf envoys but that it would not reciprocate.
In an official cabinet statement, Qatar said differences with Saudi, the UAE and Bahrain are to do with matters external to the GCC.
It said it would remain committed to "preserve and protect the security and stability of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries."
Meanwhile, GCC member Kuwait also reacted to the news. Kuwait's parliament speaker said the country’s ruling emir could help soothe a Gulf diplomatic rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.
"We follow with concern the implications," Kuwaiti parliament speaker Marzouq al-Ghanim said, according to state news agency KUNA. He added that he looked forward to efforts by Kuwait's emir to "heal a rift between brothers in the Gulf Cooperation Council," the agency said.
Khaled Almaeena, Saudi analyst and veteran media personality, commented on the situation, saying it was a “sad day” for the Gulf.
“It’s confusing now that there is no Saudi, Bahraini or Emirati ambassadorial representation in Doha,” he told Al Arabiya News.
Almaeena added that the Gulf countries have faced sticking points in the past, referring their varying policies vis a vis Egypt as an example. Qatar is a backer of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood, while other GCC states support the new interim government.
The analyst said that “all countries that are members of unions should have their own foreign policy but unfortunately that is almost never the case… Even in the EU, the members have to take one stand.
“This is a sad day for Gulf unity and further prospects of Gulf consensus,” he added.
Security and stability 'threat'
GCC countries "have exerted massive efforts to contact Qatar on all levels to agree on a unified policy... to ensure non-interference, directly or indirectly, in the internal affairs of any member state," the statement said.
The nations have also asked Qatar, a backer of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that is banned in most Gulf states, "not to support any party aiming to threaten security and stability of any GCC member," it added, citing media campaigns against them in particular.
The statement stressed that despite the commitment of Qatar's emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to these principles during a mini-summit held in Riyadh in November with Kuwait's emir and the Saudi monarch, his country has failed to comply.
A security agreement signed last year by the GCC focused on cooperation in the exchange of information and tracking down of criminals and those who violate the law.
Matteo Legrenzi, a European expert on Gulf Arab diplomacy, told Al Arabiya News: “The recalling of the ambassadors demonstrates how the proposed transformation of the Gulf Cooperation Council into a Gulf Union will be neither easy nor smooth,”
He said profound political and diplomatic differences between the six GCC member states persist and are becoming deeper.
“It is worth noting in this regard that Oman and Kuwait have refrained from withdrawing their ambassadors. Therefore, there are multiple cleavages between the position of the member states that will not be solved easily and cast a shadow on the prospect of deeper institutional integration,” Legrenzi said.
David Weinberg, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has written extensively on the GCC, told Al Arabiya News on Wednesday: “Ever since the emir of Qatar’s father, Hamad bin Khalifa, came to power in 1995, Doha has had a much more conflictual relationship with Saudi Arabia and thus the GCC.
“It now seems as though that rocky relationship is set to extend into the reign of Emir Tamim as well,” Weinberg said.
“Qatar’s hosting of exiled Muslim Brotherhood leaders from Egypt, its sponsorship of Islamist actors in Syria beyond what other GCC governments have tolerated, and its refusal to put Yusuf Qaradawi on a leash after he questioned the UAE’s Islamic pedigree, all of these are steps that have made it difficult for Shaikh Tamim to persuade his neighbors that they share a common strategic vision,” he added.
“The GCC will always have a place for Qatar, but Qatar will have to convince its neighbors that it deserves a seat at the table,” he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, a Qatar rights body said it will pursue the release of a citizen who was jailed seven years over links to an Islamist group in an "unfair" UAE ruling, local media reported.
The move came a month after Abu Dhabi summoned the Qatari ambassador to the UAE, Faris al-Nuaimi, and gave him a memorandum protesting statements made by the Doha-based religious cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi against the Gulf state.
In recent months, the UAE also jailed a group of 30 Emiratis and Egyptians to terms ranging from three months to five years for forming a Muslim Brotherhood cell.
The Brotherhood is banned in much of the region, and the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia pledged billions of dollars in aid to Egypt after the overthrow of Islamist Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi, who hails from the Islamist organization.